Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel Pans – What’s the Difference?

Sirwan Ajman
Sirwan Ajman

Sirwan Ajman

Sirwan writes cooking guides and product reviews for The Skillful Cook. In his writing, he draws from his experience running a health-conscious café.

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Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel Pan

If you’re on the hunt for cookware that’s better for the planet than Teflon, stainless steel and carbon steel are probably on top of your list. They’re both made of types of steel – but does that mean they work the same way?

Actually, carbon steel is more similar to cast iron than to stainless steel! Since stainless and carbon steel have different strengths and weaknesses, a well-rounded kitchen can benefit from both of these types of non-toxic cookware!

Let’s discuss everything you need to know about the differences between carbon steel and stainless steel, their uses, and what to look for in each. 

Carbon steel is also versatile and can be used for most cooking methods. Carbon steel doesn’t handle water or acidic foods well, so it’s almost always used for skillets or woks – not pots. 

Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel Pan – Pros and Cons

Carbon Steel

Pros

  • Durable
  • Safe
  • High heat tolerance
  • Versatile
  • High thermal conductivity
  • Affordable

Cons

  • Rust-prone
  • Reactive to acidic food
  • Needs regular seasoning
  • Not dishwasher safe

Stainless Steel

Pros

  • Safe
  • Durable
  • Easy to maintain
  • Versatile
  • Responsive 
  • Dishwasher safe

Cons

  • Not non-stick
  • Has a learning curve
  • Not all are induction-compatible
  • Hard to clean if food sticks

Construction of Carbon Steel Pans vs Stainless Steel

Carbon steel is cast iron’s close relative. They share a significant part of their composition: iron and carbon. The only difference is the percentage of these elements. 

Cast iron has more carbon (2-4%). This makes it brittle, which has to be offset by making the cookware thicker. Carbon steel has less carbon (1-3%), so it’s stronger. The lower carbon percentage makes it more malleable, so carbon steel pans are thinner and lighter than cast iron. 

Stainless Steel

Like carbon steel, stainless steel is an iron alloy. The big difference is that stainless steel contains more alloying metals, including chromium and nickel and possibly others, such as  manganese or titanium. It has a much lower carbon content, which means it’s not as hard or brittle as carbon steel. However, stainless steel has a chromium coating that makes it rust and corrosion-resistant. 

stainless steel is an iron alloy

Unlike carbon steel, stainless steel conducts heat poorly. So, it can’t be used in cookware by itself. So manufacturers add layers of conductive metals, like aluminum and copper, to stainless steel pans. These conductive layers can be bonded to the bottom of the cookware or be integrated into the entire vessel through a clad construction. Either way, if a pan is sold as “stainless steel,” it means that the cooking surface that touches your food will be stainless steel.

Advantages of Carbon Steel

Carbon steel is perfect for the cook who loves cast iron but wants something lighter. Here are the primary benefits of carbon steel: 

  • Durable. Good carbon steel cookware is built like a tank; it can last a lifetime. It can withstand high temperatures and physical shocks better than other cookware. But compared to stainless steel, it can’t withstand thermal shock as well, and is more prone to warping.
  • Safe. There are no toxic components to carbon steel. It can develop a natural non-stick layer through proper seasoning – without requiring questionable chemical coatings. 
  • High heat tolerance. Carbon steel cookware can withstand temperatures up to 1200°F, depending on its construction. A 2mm thick carbon steel pan is more likely to warp than 3mm thick types. But who is really cooking at 1200°F anyway? 
  • Versatile. The unique composition of carbon steel makes it suitable for a range of cooking methods and cooktops (more on that later in this article). So, you can use the same pot or pan to prepare different dishes, eliminating the need to purchase different cookware. 
  • High thermal conductivity. Iron is a superior heat conductor. That makes it a great option for cookware. Carbon steel heats up faster than cast iron, but it can be slower than stainless steel that has a copper core.
  • Affordable. Although you can find a wide range of prices, carbon steel is generally an affordable material for cookware. A top-notch carbon steel skillet can cost up to $150 or more, but you can find a decent one at under $30, like this Tramontina carbon steel pan. 
  • Induction compatible. Induction ranges use magnetism to heat up cookware. And anything made of iron can have this magnetic property. That means carbon steel can be used with induction ranges. However, the design and construction of cookware also matter. A good pan for induction cooktops will have a flat base to make full contact with the stove’s surface. For example, this Made In Blue carbon steel pan is induction-compatible with its completely flat base. 
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Disadvantages of Carbon Steel

Despite these merits, carbon steel comes with disadvantages that make it a deal breaker for some chefs. 

  • Rust. Carbon steel requires a bit of maintenance. It’s prone to rust due to its high iron content. This makes it lose its sleek appearance over time, while stainless steel can stay looking as shiny as it did on day one, even after years of use. 
  • Reactivity. Although carbon steel doesn’t contain toxic materials, it can react with acidic foods. This means it can leach iron into your food. This is not considered not dangerous unless you have an iron overload disorder, but it can give your food a metallic taste and dark color. (If you have iron deficiency, it can even be useful!)
  • Not good for acidic foods. Additionally, acidic foods will damage the patina, which gives carbon steel pan its nonstick properties.
  • Low responsiveness. Carbon steel cookware has great heat retention. So, it means it’s not extremely responsive to temperature changes. The thinner the carbon steel the more responsive it is, but a stainless steel pan with a copper core may be more responsive than carbon steel. 
  • Not dishwasher safe. Dishwasher detergents have harsh ingredients that can ruin the seasoning on carbon steel cookware. Most manufacturers recommend hand washing and immediately drying carbon steel skillets to prevent rust. 
  • Prone to warping. Despite its hardy nature, carbon steel is more likely to warp than stainless steel. It can withstand thermal shocks better than cast iron, but not as well as stainless steel.

You should consider these pros and cons in relation to other cookware materials. For example, carbon steel has great thermal conductivity, but it can’t beat aluminum and copper in that area. So, you may experience more hot spots with carbon steel than stainless steel with a copper core

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The same goes for heat retention. Since carbon steel is thinner than cast iron, there’s less material to retain heat. So, it has a lower heat retention than cast iron. 

What Can You Cook in a Carbon Steel Pan?

Carbon steel is prized for its versatility. You can use it to cook anything you would in a cast iron skillet and more. Since it’s lightweight, you can use it for stir-frying and sauteing. And, since carbon steel has high heat tolerance, you can use it for oven-to-stove cooking. Searing, boiling, simmering, and braising are other cooking methods that carbon steel lends itself well to. 

What Can You Cook in a Carbon Steel Pan

The only catch is that you should be careful with acidic foods like tomato sauce and lemon juice. Since carbon steel reacts with acidic foods, avoid cooking these foods, especially for long periods, in a carbon steel pan. You also shouldn’t boil water or make sauce in carbon steel – but stainless steel is great for all these things.

How To Care For Carbon Steel

Carbon steel requires moderate maintenance. It’s not a type of cookware you can just toss in the dishwasher and store in the cabinet afterward. Since it’s prone to rust, it needs some care.

Here’s what you can do to prolong your carbon steel pan’s lifespan:

  • Season it properly. Carbon steel isn’t non-stick from the factory. It requires regular seasoning to form a non-stick layer on its surface through carbonization and polymerization of oils. Seasoning can also prevent rusting as it forms a protective layer that blocks oxygen from reacting with the iron. You can season your carbon steel skillets the same way as you do with cast iron.
  • Wash it after use. Washing carbon steel with abrasive materials isn’t a good idea since it can strip off the seasoning. Always hand-wash your carbon steel skillet with warm water, a gentle dish soap, and a soft sponge. If your pan has stuck-on food, pour some warm water and simmer it on heat. Never use sharp utensils to scrub the pan. 
  • Dry after washing. Drying is the crucial step to keep your pans rust-free. Never leave your carbon steel cookware wet, even if it’s perfectly seasoned. Dry it completely and store it in a dry place. Many people heat a clean pan on the stove to make sure it is fully dry.
  • Oil the pan after drying. Seasoning after each use can improve your carbon steel pan’s non-stick properties. But if you don’t have enough time, you can rub a thin layer of oil onto the surface to prevent rusting and protect the seasoning. 
seasoned carbon steel pan

Caution: if you heat your cookware to dry it, wait for it to completely cool before wiping it with a thin layer of oil. Oil that’s wiped on to a hot pan but not burned off fully will get very sticky.

  • Never soak your cookware. Soaking carbon steel in water for any length of time can increase the chances of rusting – especially around the riveted handles. 
  • Let your pan cool before washing. As mentioned, carbon steel can warp if subjected to thermal shock. So, never pour cold water in a hot pan to wash it. Let it cool completely and wash it with warm water. 

Consider This When Choosing a Carbon Steel Pan

There’s not as much difference between different brands of carbon steel pans as some other types of cookware. Still, you should do your homework before picking the best one for your kitchen.

Here’s what to consider:

  • Thickness. The skillet’s thickness can affect its heat retention and weight. Thinner and lower-gauge carbon steel is better for stir-frying, while thicker cookware is better for searing steak. 
  • Seasoning. Most carbon steel skillets don’t come pre-seasoned. So, you don’t get a non-stick surface out of the box. Some manufacturers ship their products with a protective layer that includes vegetable oil and beeswax, but it’s only there to prevent rust during shipping, and needs to be washed off before you use your pan. Even if your pan comes pre-seasoned, you will need to repeat the seasoning process at home to develop the nice patina that carbon steel is famous for.
  • Handle design. Most carbon steel skillets come with three-point riveted handles. However, the handle’s angle and length can affect how comfortable it will be. If you use your pan for stir-frying, ensure the handle doesn’t have a sharp angle. 
  • Walls. Most carbon steel skillets have angled walls that make them perfect for searing and stir-frying. However, you can find carbon steel pans with taller and straight walls for deep frying and preventing oil splatters. Even sloped walls should be tall enough (at least 2 inches) to prevent the food from flying off while stir-frying. 
How To Choose the Best Carbon Steel Pan

All About Stainless Steel Pans

Okay, so let’s talk about stainless steel now! Stainless steel is the workhorse of many modern kitchens thanks to its exceptional durability and versatility. 

Advantages of Stainless Steel 

Many home and professional chefs switch to stainless steel cookware for the following reasons. 

  • Safety. Many home cooks choose stainless steel when they are looking for non-toxic cookware. The main elements in stainless steel cookware that might cause concerns are chromium and nickel, which can cause allergic reactions in some individuals. If you’re trying to avoid cookware that contains aluminum, stainless steel should not be a concern, since the aluminum is not part of the layer that touches your food.
  • Good for acidic foods. Stainless steel is perfect for sauces or dishes that contain tomatoes or vinegar, since it doesn’t react with acids nearly as much as carbon steel. 
  • Durability. The corrosion resistance and sturdy design of stainless steel cookware make it highly durable. If taken care of properly, it can last a lifetime.
  • Variety. Unlike carbon steel, stainless steel can be made into any type of cookware: saute pans, pots, Dutch ovens, you name it. So, you can get a complete set and never have to buy additional cookware. 
  • Ease of cleaning. With its sleek and shiny surface, stainless steel is very easy to clean. It may develop stains and discoloration, but you can clean them with home remedies. 
  • Dishwasher safe. Most stainless steel cookware is dishwasher safe. However, some manufacturers recommend hand washing to prevent discoloration and prolong its lifespan. 
Advantages of Stainless Steel Pan

Disadvantages of Stainless Steel

Like any other cookware, stainless steel comes with a few disadvantages: 

  • Not non-stick. Unless it has a Teflon coating, stainless steel isn’t non-stick. You can’t drop an egg on it at any temperature, with no oil and expect it to slide off. But it’s totally possible to cook on stainless steel without food sticking much! You just have to use the right technique. (One method is seasoning your stainless steel.)
  • Learning curve. Since stainless steel is not non-stick, it takes a bit of trial and error to figure out when the pan is ready to add food. The first few cooking experiences cooking with stainless steel can be disappointing.
  • May or may not be induction compatible. Not all stainless steel cookware is induction-compatible – although most of it is. Cookware is made with different stainless steel grades, and only ferritic stainless steel can be used on induction ranges. Many tri-ply stainless steel products use ferritic steel on their pans’ exterior to make them induction-compatible.
Disadvantages of Stainless Steel

What Can You Cook in a Stainless Steel Pan?

You can cook virtually anything with stainless steel cookware, from steaks and eggs to soups and stews. Plus, stainless steel is oven-safe. Most stainless steel products can tolerate up to 600°F. So, you can safely use it in the oven and for high-heat purposes like searing steak. 

What’s more, stainless steel isn’t reactive. So you can use it to cook acidic foods, unlike a carbon steel pan. Still, you should keep the cooking time shorter with acidic foods to minimize nickel and chromium leaching into your meal.

What Can You Cook in a Stainless Steel Pan

How To Care For Stainless Steel

Generally, stainless steel is long-lasting and resistant to deep scratches. However, you can follow these tips to keep it shiny.

  • Wash with warm water and soap. Even if you have stuck-on food, you can easily clean it with warm water and a soft sponge. No harsh chemicals are required. For severe discoloration, you can use Bar Keepers Friend or baking soda. 
  • Use the right utensils. You can use metal utensils with stainless steel. However, silicone and wooden utensils are better to prevent scratches. 
  • Don’t put hot pans in cold water. This will cause thermal shocks and warp your cookware. Always let the cookware cool down before washing. 
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How To Choose the Best Stainless Steel Cookware

With the vast variety of stainless steel cookware available, picking the right pots and pans can be challenging. Here’s what to consider:

  • Grade. Stainless steel comes in different grades. Food-grade stainless steel is typically 18/10 and 18/8, both highly corrosion-resistant and durable, thanks to their nickel and chromium percentages. 
  • Construction. 3-ply and 5-ply stainless steel is better than impact-bonded since it has heat conductivity all through the vessel. Impact-bonded has a conductive disc at the bottom. It can also be heavier and have a shorter lifetime since the disc may separate from the vessel. But it can be cheaper and works nearly as well for searing.
  • Price. All the above factors —and the brand—- can affect cookware’s price. However, some features can be overkill. For example, you don’t need 5-ply stainless steel cookware for most home uses. A 3-ply set like this All-Clad Set is everything you need for home cooking. 
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Are Stainless Steel or Carbon Steel Pans Healthier to Cook With?

Carbon steel and stainless steel are both among the safest cookware options. They don’t contain synthetic polymers like the PTFE found in most nonstick cookware. However, as we’ve mentioned, they may leach metals into your food, especially if you cook acidic foods. 

Carbon steel can leach iron, which is not toxic but can change the flavor and color of your food. You won’t face health issues unless you have a chronic case of high blood iron. Stainless steel can leach small amounts of chromium and nickel, but researchers determined that the amounts decrease after the first 6-7 times the pan is used.

Which is Easier to Maintain – Stainless Steel or Carbon Steel Pans?

Stainless steel is easier to maintain than carbon steel. It doesn’t require seasoning and doesn’t rust. You also don’t need to be as careful about what foods to cook on stainless steel, since it can handle acid and water just fine. Stainless steel is dishwasher-safe, but carbon steel is not.

Do Carbon Steel or Stainless Steel Pans Last Longer?

Both of these types of pans can last decades. Stainless steel lasts longer on average because it is less prone to pitting, rust, and warping. 

The lifespan of a metal pan depends on how well you care for it. Heat up the cookware gradually over medium or low heat to prevent thermal shock. Let it cool and clean and dry it well shortly after each time you cook.

Conclusion

Both carbon steel and stainless steel are wonderful to work with – although both take more skill than a nonstick skillet. Both are safe, highly conductive, and versatile. A stainless steel set can give you everything you want for home cooking. However, a carbon steel pan gives you all the benefits of cast iron with more ease and comfort.

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Sirwan Ajman
About The Author
Sirwan is a food writer and a proud owner of a health-conscious café. He enjoys experimenting with new flavors. Mexican and Mediterranean cuisines hold a special place in his heart.

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